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ClassicsOnline Home » BOTTESINI COLLECTION (The), Vol. 4
Giovanni Bottesini, an accomplished and respected conductor, also enjoyed a globe-trotting career as “the Paganini of the double bass”. For this recording manuscript sources have been used for his Fantasia on Bellini’s La sonnambula, Variations on Nel cor più non mi sento from Paisiello’s La molinara, arrangements of famous works such as Chopin’s Étude in C sharp minor, Op. 25 No. 7, the Air from Bach’s third Orchestral Suite and other pieces. Volumes 1–3 of this series are available on 8.570397, 8.570398 and 8.570399.
By David Denton
If Giovanni Bottesini’s father had not looked so greedily at the prospect of enrolling his son in the Milan Conservatoire, we would never have had the greatest double-bass showpieces ever composed. The story has oft been told that on finding places were left only for bassoon and double-bass, he signed his young son into the double-bass class though the boy had never played the instrument. Still only a teenager he became the greatest exponent ever known in the mid 19th century, and to make sure he had no rivals, he composed music of a difficulty only he could play them. Today they still pose a massive challenge, a fact that Thomas Martin cannot hide. Its not just a question of dexterity, but one of pitching the notes high on the fingerboard and exerting sufficient downward pressure to make them sound. Previously released on the ASV label in the late 1990s, it features three of his best-known scores, the Fantasia on Bellini’s La Sonnambula, Capriccio à la Chopin and the Introduction et Variations sur le Carnaval de Venise. Martin takes no chances with his mainly steady pulse,but does throw caution to the wind in the Capriccio. The disc includes four works with soprano voice, including the tender Melodia and the sad Romanza. They are well sung by Jacquelyn Fugelle. Anthony Halstead goes dutifully through the piano accompaniments, pulling rhythms around to help Martin through some horrendous passages. The recording quality is acceptable.
Giovanni Bottesini (1821–1889)
Fantasia ‘La Sonnambula’ • Introduction et Variations sur le Carnaval de Venise
Giovanni Bottesini, ‘the Paganini of the double bass’, was born in Crema, Northern Italy, on 22 December 1821 into a family of talented musicians. His own musical education began at the age of five, when he studied violin with an uncle. He also sang as a treble in church choirs and played timpani in several local orchestras. When he was thirteen his father, having learned that there were two scholarship places available at the Milan Conservatory, one for bassoon and the other for double bass, asked him which he would like to apply for. Young Bottesini chose the double bass, not because he already felt a particular attraction for the instrument, but mainly because of his previous knowledge of stringed instruments. During his audition, after only four lessons with Luigi Rossi, he so impressed the jury with his general musicianship that they overlooked his lack of technique; at one point he apologized for playing out of tune but promised this would not happen once he had mastered his fingering.
Thus began Bottesini’s association with the double bass, an association that was to bring him the greatest triumphs of his long and varied career. On leaving the Conservatory in 1839 he was awarded 300 francs which he used, together with 600 francs borrowed from a relative, to purchase the instrument that was to be the companion of his successful concert career. This instrument was made in 1716 by Carlo Antonio Testore and was a 3/4 size Italian double bass tuned one, or one and a half tones higher than the usual orchestral tuning. The three strings were of gut and he used a slightly longer than average French how.
Bottesini gave his first public concert in Crema in 1839 and in 1840 embarked on a concert tour of Italy with his former fellow-pupil, Luigi Arditi. 1846 found the two friends in Havana and it was here that Bottesini wrote his first opera, Cristoforo Colombo, which was performed with great success. His composing career had begun while still at the Conservatory with a Quartet for Harps in B minor. His operas, and in particular Ero e Leandro and Ali Babà were well-received in his lifetime and his fascination for the human voice can also be seen in his writings for the double bass. Although a recognised composer, it was as a virtuoso of the double bass thal he was acclaimed in all the cities that he visited, places as far apart as St Petersburg, London, Dublin, Paris, Vienna, Buenos Aires and Boston, He played before most of the crowned heads or Europe, receiving praise from, amongst others, Czar Alexander II, Emperor Napoleon III and Queen Victoria, and everywhere he played his audiences were amazed at the brilliance of his technique. His friendship with Verdi, which had begun in 1844, led the latter to choose him to conduct the first performance of Aida in Cairo and to recommend him for the post of Director of the Conservatory in Parma, a post he accepted just six months before his death in 1889.
The Fantasia ‘La Somnambula was the composition that brought Bottesini fame and fortune in the early years of his career. His London début in 1849 was with this piece with the orchestra conducted by Sir Michael Costa. He continued to perform this with great success throughout his life. He allowed the composition to be published by Richault in Paris so it has always been in the repertoire of bassists even though the double bass part was originally printed in the wrong key.
Melodia in E (Romanza patetica) was a popular salon piece and was also in the set published by Richault. It follows the form used by Bottesini for most of his slower compositions of an introduction followed by the main melodic composition with a coda to finish. The harmonics used here are among the highest on the instrument.
Capriccio ‘à la Chopin’ is, as the title suggests, inspired by Chopin whose music Bottesini admired greatly along with that of Mendelssohn. The piece is made to be seen as well as heard, using great leaps between the upper and lower registers of the instrument.
Melodia is an art song which was dedicated to Giulio Ricordi and was published by that well-known firm. Entitled Young Man in Love, it tells of the young man’s sorrow at being abandoned by his beloved.
Tutto il mondo serra is in fact an arrangement of Chopin’s Etude No. 19 in C sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 7, for soprano, double bass and piano. It was undoubtedly used with “concert parties” of various soloists who undertook tours together. We know that one such tour saw Bottesini travelling from Paris to St Petersburg (with all the stops along the way) together with the violinist Wieniawski and the great French soprano Désirée Artôt, with whom one imagines he performed this work. The words are very melancholy and tell us that everything in the world he holds dear is fleeing from him.
Introduzione e Gavotta is given here in its complete version. Two other original manuscripts exist in shortened forms. The piece was also published in London for solo piano under the name Queen Marie Gavotte.
Meditazione (Aria di Bach) is the famous Air on the G string from Bach’s Orchestral Suite in D major. It was obviously used for the salon concerts at which the artists of the day were asked to perform; then, as now, a popular favourite.
Variations on the aria Nel cor più non mi sento by Paisiello were loosely based on variations on the same theme by Paganini and are visually as well as musically constructed. In concert one sees the great leaps required to reach from the extreme low register to the high harmonic tones near the bridge.
Ci divide l’ocean is generally considered to be Bottesini’s greatest art song. It was published in the popular Ricordi collection of Italian songs. It closes: “There is no joy in my heart, we are divided by the ocean”.
Romanza exists only in two manuscript versions in a private collection. They are both dedicated to Emilia Dando. The circumstances of the dedication remain obscure (perhaps with good reason). She has betrayed her first love. She says, “God forgive me this fatal love and return its delights to me once more”.
Variations on a Scottish Air ‘Auld Robin Gray’ are based on the popular song of the time and are quite short, leading one to suppose that they may have been used as an encore.
Rêverie is a classic slow piece by Bottesini. It combines his great feeling for Italian melody with his virtuoso technique. It follows roughly the same form as his Melodia and Elegia, but without the introduction. Given the manuscript copies, one assumes that it has been published (along with several other Bottesini compositions) in a lower key in order to make it easier to play. It appears here in what I assume to be the correct tonality.
Introduction et Variations sur Le Carnaval de Venise is probably the most difficult to play of all Bottesini’s compositions and is (along with La Somnambula and Tarantella) one that appears, often under the name Air varié, the most frequently in programmes and newspaper reviews. I recall reading a letter to the editor of, I believe, The Scotsman in which the disgruntled concert-goer complains that he went expecting to hear La Somnambula and instead was treated to this “circus act”, indicating that Bottesini really performed and brought out the sounds of the other instruments that the piece contains.
The sung texts and English translation can be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/570400.htm
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